They were the best of the best – the 1976-77 Montreal Canadiens team that set records that have never been erased: most points in a season (132) and fewest losses (eight).
As the Canadiens mark their 100th anniversary on Friday, there is much to celebrate. But perhaps no team excelled like this one.
Cunning GM Sam Pollock supplied a steady stream of top-drawer talent and demanding head coach Scotty Bowman milked the most out of his skaters.
The Canadiens were led up front by gifted scorers Guy Lafleur and Steve Shutt, they were blessed with a defence that included the big three of Larry Robinson, Serge Savard and Guy Lapointe, and they had the incomparable Ken Dryden in goal.
The first line was comprised of Shutt, who scored a league-high 60 goals, Jacques Lemaire (34 goals), and Lafleur (56). That’s 150 goals. The trio accumulated 316 points. They were close to unstoppable. Lafleur won the league scoring title for the second year in a row with 136 points.
Peter Mahovlich centred a second line with Yvan Cournoyer and various left-wingers including Rejean Houle, who rejoined the Canadiens after three years in the World Hockey Association.
Yvon Lambert, Doug Risebrough and Mario Tremblay formed a third line that caused havoc with relentless forechecking, not to mention some offensive talent of its own.
The checking line of Bob Gainey, Doug Jarvis and Jim Roberts frustrated opponents’ top lines.
Robinson, Savard and Lapointe seldom made an error on the back end, and Robinson and Lapointe made big contributions to the offence, too. Robinson finished third in team scoring with 85 points including 19 goals, while Lapointe was fourth with 76 points including 25 goals.
Dryden had a won-lost-tied record of 41-6-8, with 10 shutouts, and backup Michel (Bunny) Larocque was no slouch as he went 19-2-4.
The Habs scored 216 more goals than they allowed.
There were 18 teams in the league back then and each played 80 games.
Montreal won its home opener 10-1 over Pittsburgh, the regular-season Montreal Forum finale was an 11-0 annihilation of Washington, and most everything in between was reason to jump for joy. The Canadiens went 33-1-6 at home, with the only loss a 4-3 squeaker against Boston on Oct. 30.
The Canadiens had a bye through the best-of-three first playoff round, swept St. Louis in the quarter-finals, needed six games to knock off the up-and-coming New York Islanders, and swept Boston in the championship series. Lemaire scored three winning goals including the Stanley Cup decider in a 2-1 overtime game in Boston.
“As a group, they’re the strongest club I’ve ever seen, especially their checking ability,” said then Bruins coach Don Cherry.
Bowman was relieved. He’d have hated to see such a fabulous regular season go up in smoke in a playoff disappointment. He need not have worried.
“We really do have an exceptional collection of hockey players and men,” Bowman said as his players celebrated. “We have some great stars, any of whom would be the player to build a franchise around, but there are no star complexes on this team.
“No matter how big a player is, he doesn’t expect special treatment. We have a splendid gang of players who work as support for the top stars. It’s an ideal combination.”
Lafleur won the Conn Smythe Trophy for scoring nine goals and assisting on 17.
“We win because we’re a good team, not because of any one player, no matter what the scoring figures say,” said Lafleur. “I didn’t deserve the award any more than many other players on this team.”
The Shutt-Lemaire-Lafleur line amassed 63 points in those 14 playoff games.
Lafleur, besides getting the Art Ross Trophy as scoring champion, also won the Hart Trophy as MVP, Pearson Award as outstanding player as voted on by NHL players, and later in 1977 won the Lionel Conacher Award as Canada’s male athlete of the year.
Bowman won the Jack Adams Trophy for coach of the year, Robinson had the best plus-minus rating in the league and took home the Norris Trophy for best defenceman and Dryden and Larocque shared the Vezina Trophy for lowest team goals-against average.
The NHL’s first all-star team had Dryden in goal, Robinson and Toronto’s Borje Salming on defence, Marcel Dionne of the Los Angeles Kings at centre, and Lafleur and Shutt on the wings.
The 1976-77 Canadiens compiled a 73-10-11 won-lost-tied record in 94 regular-season and playoff games.
It was a young team, too. Most of the players were in their mid-20s. The only three over 30 were Savard, 31, Mahovlich, 31, and Roberts, 37. The farm team, the Halifax-based Nova Scotia Voyageurs won the AHL title, too, meaning more top talent was on its way, and Pollock had two picks in the first round of the ’77 NHL draft to look forward to.
The organization’s depth of talent was the reason for the success that season, said Dryden.
“That depth, more than anything, allowed us to sustain the drive, which gave us such a good season,” he offered after the finale in Boston. “On most teams, if four or five players are hurt or go into a little slump, the team slips.
“If we have that many off their game, we still have 15 guys who can do a good job. There’s always somebody picking up the slack.”
The number of games lost during the regular season by the 1976-77 team, eight, was equalled by the 2009-2010 edition on Nov. 3.